The Number Ones

June 19, 1971

The Number Ones: Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Carole King was 18 when she landed her first #1 hit, and she was 29 when she became one of the most popular musicians in the world. King, the daughter of a Brooklyn firefighter and teacher, met Gerry Goffin when both of them were at Queens College. She was 17, and pregnant with their daughter, when she married him. That was in 1959. A year later, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” a song that Goffin and King had written for the Shirelles, went to #1.

For years, Goffin and King cranked out hit after hit. Goffin would write the lyrics, and King would write the music. Their system worked. They knew what they were doing. “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Go Away Little Girl” both hit #1. So did “The Loco-Motion“; Little Eva, who sang the song, was Goffin and King’s 17-year-old babysitter when she recorded it. Plenty of the duo’s other songs didn’t hit #1, but they still rule: The Drifters’ “Up On The Roof” (1963, peaked at #5, a 9), the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” (1963, peaked at #5, a 9), the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (1967, peaked at #3, a 9), Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967, peaked a #8, a 9).

But in 1968, Goffin and King divorced, and King moved out to California, settling in Laurel Canyon. She formed a band called the City, which included her future husband Charles Larkey, and they released one low-selling album before breaking up. She recorded a solo album called Writer with her buddy James Taylor on guitar, and that didn’t do much, either. But then Tapestry happened.

Tapestry, King’s second solo album, was a total juggernaut: 15 straight weeks at #1, six years on the album charts, 25 million copies sold, Grammys for Album and Record and Song Of The Year. On Tapestry, King included new versions of two of the old hits that she’d co-written with Goffin, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” But those versions sounded nothing like the versions that had come out years before. The album marks a stunning reinvention: A behind-the-scenes pop craftswoman stepping out into the spotlight, seizing on a moment, and somehow finding even more success than she’d had when she was just a name on the record sleeve. “It’s Too Late,” the album’s one dominant hit, represents a whole different form of pop music from a woman who’d already mastered the kind that had been around the previous decade.

King wrote the music for “It’s Too Late,” but she didn’t write the lyrics. Those came from her friend Toni Stern, who’d just broken up with James Taylor when she wrote it. (We tend to assume that the song is about Taylor, but Stern’s never confirmed that.) It’s a breakup song, but it’s a layered and nuanced one. King’s narrator isn’t upset or heartbroken about the end of this relationship. She simply recognizes that the couple isn’t working anymore, that it’s time to move on: “One of us is changing / Or maybe we both stopped trying… You look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” She’s about as nice as you can be to a person while still letting that person know that it’s over: “I’m glad for what we had and how I once loved you.”

King didn’t write those lyrics, but she did sell them. After all those years writing songs for sharp and polished singers, King herself turned out to be remarkably idiosyncratic. There’s a conversational looseness to the way she sings, but there’s intensity, too. It’s one of those voices you immediately recognize, a distinctive honk. It’s not a voice I especially like, but it works for “It’s Too Late.”

And King clearly understood where pop music had gone. Tapestry belongs to the Laurel Canyon folk-rock school, but there’s also some jazz and soul in the breezy, laid-back arrangement. This was a hugely important sound, a game-shifter for pop music. But it’s never worked for me. (This is true of all of Tapestry. The only song on the album I really like is, “Where You Lead,” and that is entirely for extra-musical, Gilmore Girls-related reasons.) I hear those saxophone tootles and noodley guitar runs and gooey Fender Rhodes chords, and my brain just shuts off.

It’s something I’ll never quite understand: How the ’60s version of Carole King wrote all these songs that I love, and how the ’70s version of her wrote songs that just evaporate upon impact with my brain. This stuff clearly struck a cultural chord, and Tapestry helped make the world safe for the ’70s singer-songwriter boom. And yet I just hear nothing in it. I’ve always wondered if this sound — that jazzy-folky ’70s thing — would click for me. But I turn 40 this year, and it hasn’t happened yet. It’s too late, baby.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 1972 “It’s Too Late” cover from Billy Paul, the Philly soul singer who will get his own entry in this column soon enough:

And here’s M.O.P.’s 2000 album track “Face Off,” which finds producer DJ Premier chopping up a sample of Billy Paul’s version of “It’s Too Late”:

(Unless I’m missing something, the highest-charting Premier-produced track is Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” which peaked at #6 in 2006. It’s a 7.)

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